Is New York's Mr Fixit ready to run for the White House?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am

Six years ago, few people rated Michael Bloomberg's chances of stepping into Rudolph Giuliani's shoes as mayor of New York. The self-funded media mogul was regarded as a political wild card.

Yet the 2001 mayoral election saw this political outsider beat the odds to take charge of a wounded city, his astute business sense deemed an essential tool in getting New York back on its feet after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Aided by Mr Giuliani's last-minute backing and his own seemingly bottomless campaign war chest, Mr Bloomberg's arrival has changed much, not least the preconception that a tycoon with little political experience would be unable to handle such a job.

It stands as a barometer of his success that, despite Mr Bloomberg's oft-repeated claims that he will quit politics after his second term ends in 2009, he has been unable to escape the lingering question that has befallen so many of his predecessors: will he consider running for president in 2008.

Mr Bloomberg's response has usually been a flat and occasionally prickly denial in which he ridicules the idea, as he did last year. 'I'll send my mother a copy of a letter that suggested I had an interest in running for president, which I don't,' he said.

Yet many in New York are wondering if his sentiments have suddenly shifted, in the light of unusually cryptic comments made last week. What seemed like a typical denial was upended by a caveat: 'Absolutely not,' he initially replied, before adding 'and anybody who is running will say exactly that'.

Naturally, the hint has caused a frenzy of media speculation.

Five years into the job and Mr Bloomberg has transformed the way New York is run. After a shaky start that saw his approval-rating plummet to 24 per cent after a rise in property taxes and a citywide ban on smoking, he has reassured New Yorkers that he is a man willing to listen and act.

Credited with wiping out a projected US$5 billion deficit, he spent his first term reducing crime, building more affordable housing and trying to take more control of the city's woeful school system.

Last November's re-election was a no-contest. Even the liberal New York Times found itself saluting a Republican who was on his way to being remembered as 'one of the greatest mayors in New York history'.

Yet is he serious about running for the White House?

Admitting to being 'too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals', the mayor pointedly added last weekend that money would not be an issue.

A presidential campaign would require somewhere between US$200 million to US$300 million.

For many, the idea of Mr Bloomberg wedging himself between the hefty Republicanism of Mr Giuliani and the potential Democratic challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 race is a mouthwatering prospect.

Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor who worked for the mayor's first campaign, said the US was ready for Mr Bloomberg's brand of governance.

'The style of leadership that he has demonstrated over the past six years has been very effective for New York and it's something that the nation would benefit from,' he said. 'It's results-oriented, it's problem-solving and it's intensively non-partisan. The problems faced by New York are the same ones that the nation faces.'

Mr Bloomberg's non-political administration is renowned for a steely focus on competence-based governance, enabling it to avoid thorny issues of class and colour in its policies.

As a self-made billionaire, Mr Bloomberg's mayorship is also notable for being free of concessions for the sake of donations.

Eschewing the opportunity to live in the traditional mayor's dwelling, he lives in a midtown Manhattan apartment, rides the subway to work every morning and refuses to draw the US$195,000 mayoral salary, instead taking an annual sum of US$1. Faced with criticism over the fact his personal wealth enabled him to spend 'obscene' amounts on getting himself re-elected, he has learned to counter it with references to traditional values.

'What's a billionaire got to do with it? I mean, would you rather elect a poor person who did not succeed? Look, I'm a great American dream.'

Democratic political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf recently said Mr Bloomberg would 'clean up the mess in Washington; he'll make the economy work'. And as they say, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.